As you may have heard, I took a little road trip between Christmas and New Year's this year -- for no good reason besides awesome. The plan was simple: five cities in five days to watch ten teams play five games. So on Boxing Day I hopped in my car just outside of Toronto and started my trip. I traveled through 1 province, 10 states, and also DC (plus another state if you count my trip home for Christmas...). I put almost 3000 Km on my car, found out that Amtrak can actually run on time if it tries, and discovered some absolute gems in the world of hockey. In a word, it was splenderific.
|December 27||Columbus, OH||CGY @ CBJ||2-1 (SO)||Flames|
|December 28||Nashville, TN||MIN @ NSH||2-1 (SO)||Predators|
|December 29||Raleigh, NC||TOR @ CAR||4-3 (OT)||Hurricanes|
|December 30||Washington, DC||BUF @ WSH||3-1||Capitals|
|December 31||Newark, NJ||PIT @ NJD||Stupid||Stupider|
Follow me after the jump for excessive ramblings on everything from the games I watched to the arenas I watched them in, the fan-bases I watched them with, and the former Penguins who played in them. And also a poll.
At my first stop I watched Calgary beat Columbus 2-1 in the shootout. Put another way, Calgary beat Columbus 2-1 in the shootout while I spent the evening ogling Jarome Iginla.
As you may know, Columbus is playing from the back of the pack these days, but that didn't make the game a dud. They put forth a solid effort, and Steve Mason played a little more like the Calder trophy winner we long to see between the pipes, and a little less like the goalie whose sophomore slump just won't end. Calgary is doing a little better, but watching them play was a lesson in the perennial truth that Iginla remains on a team that just hasn't been built up to complement his talent. Seeing that makes one appreciate what the Pens have built all the more.
Overall, the atmosphere in Nationwide Arena was decent, and the fans certainly got excited every time Rick Nash touched the puck. But I don't think they've quite figured out what to make of Carter just yet, and their patience with their team's performance seems to be wearing understandably thin.
The arena itself is pretty well put together, with a number of interesting displays throughout. And also a cannon. They don't have the same history to their team and arena that many cities enjoy, but they have put together a good fan experience nonetheless.
As for a moment I really wish I'd managed to get on film but failed miserably at? Well there were two.
The first occurred when a player unleashed an incredible rocket of a shot toward the net, but a little high. Clearly heeding his keen survival instincts, Mason ducked. Like got down on his knees and tucked his head against the ice, ducked. I don't exactly blame him, considering the force with which the puck struck the glass in front of me, but it was quite the thing to see from an NHL goalie.
The other incident occurred when Nash collided with a Calgary player, and one of the on-ice officials got entangled in the mix. The Flamer got away, but I don't think Nash realized it as he grabbed the official and pulled him to the ice, bear hug style. When they finally managed to get to their feet, Nash skated away, but not without a little shove from behind by the man in black and white.
That goes down in my memory bank as a classic hockey moment.
The following day took me to Nashville, Tennessee for a coaching duel between our beloved Mike Yeo and whoever it is that coaches the Predators these days.
The game itself was a good one, with guys like Dany Heatley and Mikko Koivu showing why they get paid more money than me. In the random observations category I must say that Martin Erat is a pretty incredible skater who just kind of floats around, leaving you never quite sure how he got from where he started to where he ended up. And Jordin Tootoo is fun to watch: he brings a real spark with him when he steps on the ice.
Oh and remember Nick Johnson?
The real story about Nashville, though, is about the way they do the game. I suppose I shouldn't be all that surprised, what with all the show business blood in Nashville, but they really put on a great event. Their mascot came flying out on some kind of all terrain vehicle, they had a band playing really good music between the second and third periods, and they just generally created a great atmosphere without taking away from the hockey game that was happening.
The crowd didn't really go for the manufactured cheers that sometimes get tossed around, but they had a variety of additions to typical chants, and they were often singing along with the (really quite good, and fortunately not typically country) music that was being pumped through the speakers. I left the game feeling like I'd been treated to a great show while surrounded by a bunch of the coolest kids in class.
Oh, and Nashville gets the prize for the awesomest-thing-in-the-arena, with this:
Back to the hockey, it was really interesting to see the pace of the game. As Pens fans in the current era we are used to seeing a fast paced puck possession game, and when teams like Minnesota and Nashville come to town they can seem slow and a little backward, what with the systems they employ. Of course, the Wild have changed a bit under Fletcher and Yeo, but not drastically so, in my opinion.
The point is that it was really interesting to watch these two teams play each other and to see how their systems interacted with each other. There was a lot more passing backward than we're used to, and yet both teams managed to play the game at a pace comparable to what we see from the Pens when they are really on their game.
Next I went to Raleigh and....PONI!!!
The Canes fans were great, and really got the arena rocking once Eric Staal did that put-the-team-on-his-back thing. In Columbus, fans seemed to be cheering for Nash every time he touched the puck just because Nash is their star; in Raleigh they cheered when Staal touched the puck because he kept finding ways to make magic on the ice. He had an excellent game, and it was really fun to watch.
Recaps of the game talk about how Toronto kind of fell apart and gave up their two goal lead in the game, ultimately losing in overtime. Maybe I'm biased, but I don't think that's quite what happened. Instead, E-Staal went to the trainers and got some awesome juice between periods, then peed it all over the offensive zone. I'm not sure even Free Candy circa Cup Run 2008 could have stopped him.
Speaking of the slightly lesser Staal, he really does everything for that team. He's an obvious top-sixer who plays on both the power play and the penalty kill. He's out there when the game is on the line, when the team needs a boost, or when the wind is either blowing or not blowing. Much like Iginla, he needs more of a supporting cast. Yes, Jeff Skinner is out with a concussion-like, but I am again reminded to be impressed with Pittsburgh's depth.
Oh. And awkward Kessel was there.
Speaking for a moment as a Leafs fan, let me just apologize on behalf of Leafs nation for the completely obnoxious nature of Leafs fans when we attend games in places like Raleigh. It's not that we're a bunch of jerks, really. I think it's just that a total sense of childlike wonderment takes us over when we find out we can not only get seats for the game, but we can get incredible seats and they cost less than our firstborn children. So we can't help ourselves.
Regardless, good on the Carolina fans for taking over the arena with their noise, even if they left all the good seats for us.
The next day I found myself in Washington, not quite sure what to expect from a game between a Pens' rival and that younger cousin you're never quite sure what to do with: do you make fun of him for his shortcomings, or just pat him on the head and tell him everything will be okay?
Anyway, I looked and looked and looked, but it seems the Caps have forgotten to hang their Stanley Cup banner in the Verizon Center. Someone should prolly let them know.
Buffalo played a lot like that team that lost to Pittsburgh a trillion to 1, and while Washington played okay, they are still making a surprising number of mistakes. In the end, Alex Ovechkin and Tomas Vokoun had outstanding games, and they are difference-makers when that happens.
Of the five games I attended this week, I must say that my Verizon Center experience was most similar to what we get at the CEC for Pens games, complete with the annoying fan exodus toward the end of the third period.
My favourite moment came after the game, just outside the arena, where a bunch of guys were playing brass instruments and entertaining the crowd that gathered. They've likely been given a license to be there or whatever, but for a few minutes at least, it was really fun to just enjoy the moment and pretend like we were part of a relatively spontaneous street performance. Sabres fans and Caps fans danced together, and nothing seemed farther away than real life.
Now I am obviously as biased as a Crosby/Malkin-era Pens fan can be, but I've never completely understood why anyone at all is a fan of the Washington Capitals. Everything from the way GMGM works to the way that Ovi is treated to the particular level of suck that has been their playoff performance, I could never see myself ever ever becoming a Caps fan (no disrespect to the Japers' Rink folk, who are generally intelligent and amicable hockey fans, regardless of their mistaken allegiances).
That said, attending this game helped me to understand them a little more. Not in a way that I can exactly articulate just now, but suffice to say that I'm no longer in the "the only way to be a Caps fan is to be partially brain dead " camp. For now, anyway.
My final game was in Newark for the Pens game. Most of you have already cried yourself to sleep over that one, so I'll skip the game-related comments. Except, of course, to send a little "Oh hai, Petr!" out there.
The arena is filled with rich history, and celebration of their team and their sport. And a giant hockey puck that has a cow for a best friend.
Not to mention the old guy rolling cigars at a table in the concourse, and a two-wall display detailing the exploits of Thomas Edison (who, as it turns out, invented stuff in New Jersey). This arena definitely wins an award for housing the most random stuff.
It's a nice place, though, and really full of light. Just don't expect to get your bottled drink with a cap on it (weird and random), and when you come into the arena don't mentally mark which entrance you used by the various jerseys hanging overhead. Because there are jerseys hanging throughout the arena and when you do that you end up having to guess at your exit and then you get it wrong and you have to walk all around the outside of the arena and its annoying, okay?
Anyway, they had a fire works display after the game which, for me, was really enhanced by the two young and slightly drunk guys standing behind me making sarcastic comments about Crosby and the Pens. I don't think they realized how much they were cracking me up, so we'll let that be our little secret. My guess is they don't know about the interweb yet, so we're safe.
And that was my trip. Or at least a little taste of it.
It was awesome, and I highly recommend it for all hockey fans.
But before you leave, please take a moment to answer the all-important poll below, inspired in every way by the second game of my series.